Learning from Komen: [Social Media] Crisis Communications!

by Megan on Feb 7, 2012 in Advocacy, Social Media | 4 Comments

You’ve all seen the news surrounding Komen’s recent (now retracted) decision. Last Tuesday, the news broke that Susan G. Komen had pulled all grant funding for breast cancer screenings at Planned Parenthood. Just a few days later, Komen has lost staff and support, reversed its decision, and is in the midst of its biggest branding crisis yet — while Planned Parenthood has raised over $3 million dollars. As Kivi Miller lays out in her analysis, Komen is undergoing an undesired rebranding of the organization.

I’m not going to get into the decision-making process that led Komen to make breast cancer screenings more difficult to access in the near term (you can read my thoughts on that here) — instead, I want to focus on the mistakes Komen made that other nonprofits can learn from.

  • First, Komen stayed silent — losing a critical opportunity to frame the initial conversation. Instead, Planned Parenthood broke the announcement with a campaign and made the situation their own.
  • When Komen finally did make a statement, it tried to ignore the unfolding crisis and sidestepped the topic of Planned Parenthood altogether.
  • By the time Komen really got involved, it was too late. And even then, Komen failed to acknowledge the concerns of its supporters. It never said, “we’re listening” or “we understand” — even in its apology.
  • Once the firestorm started, Komen began deleting comments off of its Facebook fan page (despite their claims to the contrary) and failed to respond to the ones it left standing. It didn’t engage until it was too late.
  • In the midst of the controversy, Komen’s VP of Public Policy, Karen Handel, made a very public and easily preventable mistake, making the situation even worse for Komen.
  • Ultimately, Komen failed to be a source of information and instead let Planned Parenthood and grassroots groups such as De-Fund the Komen Foundation and MoveOn.org lead the dialogue. When it did finally enter the scene, it didn’t do so consistently across platforms. For instance, its first tweet linked to Nancy Brinker’s first video, not Komen’s first statement (above) which had been posted an hour prior to Komen’s first tweet. And no mention of the situation ever made it to Komen’s blog.

How can others avoid the mistakes Komen made?

  1. Identify the crisis. Take a step back to ensure that the situation is fully understood. Listen to what is being said, and how it is affecting your organization’s image.
  2. Acknowledge the concern. If you need time to respond, acknowledge that your organization is listening and seeking an answer. It will help give your organization time to respond. In your acknowledgment, make sure to be understanding – even if the criticism is not valid, emotions run high in a crisis and those on the opposing side will feel that their concerns, whether true or not, are accurate.

    For example, when the Komen crisis hit, Yoplait did a fantastic job of letting its customers know it was listening. It acknowledged their concern and made it clear that it wanted, and valued, feedback. It even set up a dedicated tab on Facebook to collect its customers’ thoughts and reported back once it had delivered those comments to the appropriate people.

  3. Don’t rely on just one platform – word can quickly spread across platforms. Use Facebook, Twitter, your blog, etc.
  4. Respond quickly, but carefully. Timeliness is crucial when defusing a crisis. Have a pre-determined group to consult in a crisis, whether it is an email list or a quick phone call, and make sure the group is equipped to craft an initial response without an outside approval process. Depending on the severity of the concern, it might be worth reaching out to the individual, or group, who is behind it with a phone call – in addition to responding publicly.
  5. Engage your supporters to defend your organization. Often times in a crisis, your supporters are your biggest assets. Reach out to those that have consistently supported you in the past, and encourage them to get involved in the conversation.
  6. Be the source of information. You cannot control what people say, but you can make sure your organization’s position is seen. Create a page, or utilize your blog, to provide updates on the situation and aggregate the news across platforms. Explain what happened – make the “what” and “how” public. Transparency promotes trust.

And, of course, it helps to avoid making decisions that are counter to your mission!


  • Great insight. I want to second your praise for Yoplait. I think people on both sides of the debate are happy with them in the aftermath.

    One more fumble Komen made was in Brinker’s MSNBC interview. I dissected it here: http://www.SimplifyNP.com/dont-tell-me-im-wrong/

    • I agree with your dissection of her video. Once they got involved, their entire initial approach was “You’re wrong, we’re right — don’t tell me we’re wrong!” That definitely was not the right approach.

  • This is such a great article, Megan, and so timely. So many organizations have been trying to ignore the huge impact of social media. Unfortunately for companies looking for brand control, social media platforms are a free-for-all where anyone can post comments, good or very, very bad. Just deleting the comments will not delete the problem. I completely agree that Yoplait did an amazing job. It’s about listening to your audience and interacting to strengthen your brand, not ignoring and trying to stifle your audience.

  • Excellent article. Organizations can learn a lot about branding from Komen’s mistakes.

    Even in the midst of a negative word-of-mouth battle, there is always the opportunity to engage and shape the conversation. The smart brands are the ones that realize early on that this is a gift and that all of the publicity (even if it is negative) is their chance to create an open dialogue with their constituents. I hope Komen learned “what not to do” for next time.

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About Megan

My passion lies in empowering people to become advocates for a healthier world. I truly believe we can make a difference in our communities and that belief empowers me to seek out new and creative ways to create change.

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